Gimme a Smile: Cracking the Kid Code

  • By PEGGY MCKEE BARNHILL
  • Sunday, December 6, 2015 1:01am
  • Neighbors

As any parent knows, having a conversation with your children sometimes feels like speaking a foreign language. Successful parent/child communication involves cracking the code.

Kids regularly speak in a code of their own making. If you ask them why, they might respond, “Because of reasons.” I hear “reasons” a lot around my house, which is code speak for one of two options. First: “You don’t want to know.” This is patently untrue. I’m the mom — I always want to know. The second option: “I don’t want to tell you.” Ah, here’s where the maternal prying begins. “Why don’t you want to tell me?” And the answer is, invariably, “reasons.”

Speaking of prying, kids know that parents are noted for their intensely personal questions designed to either extract information or embarrass their offspring; questions like, “How was school today?” or “How are your grades?” Kid Code has evolved to counter such insensitive questions with the multipurpose answer, “Good.” “How was the Taylor Swift concert that you’ve been waiting six months to attend?” “Good.” “How was your science presentation that kept you up all night in a cold sweat for the past week and a half?” “Good.”

In our house we’ve taken to asking for the Incident Report, in an effort to bypass the uninspired “good.” Suddenly details appear, and we hear the tales of ketchup packets flicked up to stick on the ceiling, or the contest to earn extra credit by capturing the mouse in math class.

Once the flow of communication begins, parents have to deal with the “like” issue. “Like” is the most common code word in a teen’s vocabulary. It can show up multiple times in the same utterance, as in: “Me and Sissy were, like, going downtown, and she was like, “let’s take the bus,” and I was like, “do you have bus fare?” and she was like, “let’s ask your dad,” and I was like, “he’s, like, sleeping right now,” and she was like, “oh well, we can wait till he wakes up.”

You’ve heard it, right? Challenge a teenager to go five minutes without saying the word “like” — it can’t be done.

Another confusing aspect of Kid Code occurs when parents take their child’s comments at face value. Big mistake.

A kid might say, “I’ve got a soccer game this weekend,” to which his parent responds, “Okay. Thanks for letting me know.” Parents, beware! This is not a mere passage of information. Decoded, this sentence reads, “I need you to wash my soccer uniform, help me find my shin guards, drive me to the field, and once there, coach will probably ask you to referee the game.” Or, if the child lives in Southeast Alaska, the translation is more like, “I need you to take me to the ferry terminal at 6 a.m. to travel 14 hours to get to the game — oh, and by the way, I need $45 for the activity fee and another $60 for meals.” Best to get to the root of the decoded message before you thoughtlessly respond, “Okay.”

Sometimes Kid Code can morph into a legalistic system of loopholes through which kids get what they want by interpreting their parents’ words to suit their own agendas. Consider the following example: Mom instructs the child to, “First do your chores, then you can watch TV.” When Mom returns home, she finds the chores undone and the child watching TV. She confronts him with his noncompliance, and the kid replies, “You told me to do my chores before watching TV. I did chores last Tuesday. That was before I turned on the TV this afternoon. I did what you asked.” A smart-aleck, to be sure, this child is destined for greatness as a lawyer and master of the code.

To be fair, parents have their own parental code, most noted for the myriad of ways to pronounce the word “no.” These include, “I’ll think about it,” “Give me a minute,” “Go ask your father,” “First, do x-y-z,” or the ubiquitous, “Maybe.” Generations of kids have gotten their hopes up at the sound of “maybe,” only to have them dashed when their parents come back with the “no” that they always intended.

Misunderstandings and family tensions are bound to result from the collision of two different codes coexisting in the same household. Sometimes that friction gets bad enough to warrant outside help. Who you gonna call? Codebusters!

If only . . .

In reality, it’s up to the parents to learn to crack the Kid Code and decipher their children’s attempts at communication. Don’t worry parents; you’re, like, up for the task, because of reasons. In the end, if I ask how your latest chat with your child went, you’ll tell me, “Good.”

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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